Why is it hard to model speech perception?

So this is a kick-off post for a series of posts about various speech perception models. Speech perception models, you ask? Like, attractive people who are good at listening?

Romantic fashion model

Not only can she discriminate velar, uvular and pharyngeal fricatives with 100% accuracy, but she can also do it in heels.

No, not really. (I wish that was a job…) I’m talking about a scientific model of how humans perceive speech sounds. If you’ve ever taken an introductory science class, you already have some experience with scientific models. All of Newton’s equations are just a way of generalizing general principals generally across many observed cases. A good model has both explanatory and predictive power. So if I say, for example, that force equals mass times acceleration, then that should fit with any data I’ve already observed as well as accurately describe new observations. Yeah, yeah, you’re saying to yourself, I learned all this in elementary school. Why are you still going on about it? Because I really want you to appreciate how complex this problem is.

Let’s take an example from an easier field, say, classical mechanics. (No offense physicists, but y’all know it’s true.) Imagine we want to model something relatively simple. Perhaps we want to know whether a squirrel who’s jumping from one tree to another is going to make. What do we need to know? And none of that “assume the squirrel is a sphere and there’s no air resistance” stuff, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. We need to know the force and direction of the jump, the locations of the trees, how close the squirrel needs to get to be able to hold on, what the wind’s doing, air resistance and how that will interplay with the shape of the squirrel, the effects of gravity… am I missing anything? I feel like I might be, but that’s most of it.

So, do you notice something that all of these things we need to know the values of have in common? Yeah, that’s right, they’re easy to measure directly. Need to know what the wind’s doing? Grab your anemometer. Gravity? To the accelerometer closet! How far apart the trees are? It’s yardstick time. We need a value , we measure a value, we develop a model with good predictive and explanatory power (You’ll need to wait for your simulations to run on your department’s cluster. But here’s one I made earlier so you can see what it looks like. Mmmm, delicious!) and you clean up playing the numbers on the professional squirrel-jumping circuit.

Let’s take a similarly simple problem from the field of linguistics. You take a person, sit them down in a nice anechoic chamber*, plop some high quality earphones on them and play a word that could be “bite” and could be “bike” and ask them to tell you what they heard. What do you need to know to decide which way they’ll go? Well, assuming that your stimuli is actually 100% ambiguous (which is a little unlikely) there a ton of factors you’ll need to take into account. Like, how recently and often has the subject heard each of the words before? (Priming and frequency effects.) Are there any social factors which might affect their choice? (Maybe one of the participant’s friends has a severe overbite, so they just avoid the word “bite” all together.) Are they hungry? (If so, they’ll probably go for “bite” over “bike”.) And all of that assumes that they’re a native English speaker with no hearing loss or speech pathologies and that the person’s voice is the same as theirs in terms of dialect, because all of that’ll bias the  listener as well.

The best part? All of this is incredibly hard to measure. In a lot of ways, human language processing is a black box. We can’t mess with the system too much and taking it apart to see how it works, in addition to being deeply unethical, breaks the system. The best we can do is tap a hammer lightly against the side and use the sounds of the echos to guess what’s inside. And, no, brain imaging is not a magic bullet for this.  It’s certainly a valuable tool that has led to a lot of insights, but in addition to being incredibly expensive (MRI is easily more than a grand per participant and no one has ever accused linguistics of being a field that rolls around in money like a dog in fresh-cut grass) we really need to resist the urge to rely too heavily on brain imaging studies, as a certain dead salmon taught us.

But! Even though it is deeply difficult to model, there has been a lot of really good work done on towards a theory of speech perception. I’m going to introduce you to some of the main players, including:

  • Motor theory
  • Acoustic/auditory theory
  • Double-weak theory
  • Episodic theories (including Exemplar theory!)

Don’t worry if those all look like menu options in an Ethiopian restaurant (and you with your Amharic phrasebook at home, drat it all); we’ll work through them together.  Get ready for some mind-bending, cutting-edge stuff in the coming weeks. It’s going to be [fʌn] and [fʌnetɪk]. 😀

*Anechoic chambers are the real chambers of secrets.


2 responses

  1. Pingback: The Motor Theory of Speech Perception |

  2. Pingback: The Acoustic Theory of Speech Perception |

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